The rapid transit system has been expanded and now you can take the train in from the airport. You ride the train to your old stop and take the escalator up. It’s changed. The people you moved to the Mission District to get away from? They live there now.
It doesn’t matter where you walk; you keep walking past the apartments of dead people.
The hills and the bracing clarity of the air: it’s a city that wants as many people as possible to have a view. The beauty of the landscape and the memories of dead friends: they sit next to each other in your head.
Still, the city is only seven miles across. Of course, in hindsight, such a rare city was always on its way to being expensive. But when you were young, the gay papers were full of obituaries and the city was full of vacant apartments and so you did not think it strange that you and your friends should be allowed to live there. That battered city suggested you might be left alone and back in 1989 the hope of being left alone was the best your country had to offer you.
In those distant days, you loved a man who worked long shifts at a coffee shop. His clothes, hair, and skin all smelled like roasted coffee beans. When, a few months into this love affair, you realized that the smell of coffee was the main thing you liked about him, that realization precipitated no crisis. Today, it isn’t him that you miss; it’s the ease of that kind of love.
You can’t stop crying.
Back then, coffee shops in San Francisco were affordable, largely empty during the day, and allowed you to while away hours there. You and your friends went to coffee shops to hold committee meetings and always found a large table to commandeer. In exchange for, say, an Orangina, you wrote press releases and planned acts of civil disobedience.
Turns out you had realized fairly quickly that being left alone was not enough.
In today’s San Francisco, cafés are full of freelancing tech workers. They speak loudly into their cell phones, using phrases like “trend setting” and “funding vehicles.” A direct quote: “Convince them your self-interest increases team value.” You look in vain for an empty seat.
People say there are things money can’t buy. You’d like to see that list of things.
You introduce yourself to a handsome man at a bar and he uses the phrase, “classic San Francisco.” He doesn’t mean the Summer of Love. He doesn’t mean Harvey Milk’s era. He means the time you were there and hoarse from constantly shouting in the streets.
You can’t remember the names of everyone who died. None of your friends can. You have to ponder old photographs. You ask each other, Remember him? What was his name?
When you reminisce, sometimes your friends begin to narrate experiences you shared, but about which you have zero recollection. Significant events like funerals of housemates or injuries you sustained at the hands of police. The recollections of your friends are detailed and clear; yours are missing entirely. “The swelling on your hip was as big as a grapefruit. How can you not remember that?” These are events most people would probably never forget, but then again, most people weren’t queer and living in San Francisco during the plague.
Memory is not any one person’s task; memory is something we build together. The reason for this is because memory is a burden.
Halfway through your visit, you realize you have begun bracing yourself for bad news when you run into a familiar face on the street. Trouble seems to stalk the lives of your friends like bruises erupting years after the blows were delivered. You ready yourself to hear which of your friends seroconverted (six of them), were homeless for a while (three of them), struggled with addiction (five of them), had a recent hospital stay (one of them), were assaulted on the street (three of them), were evicted (six of them), or lost their tenured teaching job (one of them). Be prepared to revisit the stories of former activists who died from overdosing (two), who died from the strain of detoxing (one), or died after they stopped taking their medication (one). Be prepared to hear about the mutual friend who has become a hoarder (one), never leaves his apartment (another one), or is depressed (five).
You brace yourself because you don’t want anyone to see that, when you receive these pieces of news, sometimes you react with anger, sometimes with alarm, and sometimes you feel like weeping. Instead you listen and you nod and you say something supportive. You doubt you will able to keep this up but it turns out you are, in fact, able to. You’ve had practice.
To think that certain events are not fair is, on the one hand, absurd. On the other hand, to think that way is indispensable.
You have other friends, it’s true, who are still engaged in social change work, still working at non-profits, still exhibiting their artwork. One has returned to college decades after his suicide attempt led to him dropping out. He makes jokes about being the oldest person in his class. These friends seem productive; some seem happy. It is too simple to say their good news makes you happy. Mostly, it makes you wonder how it is that any of you are still here.
The morning of your departure you stand in a long line at one of the new coffeehouses. The chatter is loud and you’re hungover and the menu they’ve suspended over the counter seems determined to give you some sort of equatorial geography lesson. It feels to you like you’ve somehow found yourself at someone else’s party; it’s crowded and maybe they let you stay, but everyone can tell you weren’t invited.
To age in the same city—to stay—is a kind of courage. To flee—the way you did—that’s another kind of courage.
When you were young and moved to San Francisco, new friends took you in and made you anew. San Francisco and your friends made you anew.
Your friends, your friends, your friends.